Building a Social Enterprise from the Ground up – the Story of Imara Tech

In Tanzania, small-hold farmers face a lot of risks. They are disproportionately affected by poverty, severely impacted by climate change, and always the last to benefit from new technology. But, that paradigm is shifting. Farming communities are gaining access to threshing tools and machinery that can help them become more self-reliant with higher yields in the field, more money in the bank, and more time to lend a helping hand to neighbors. In part, this wouldn’t be possible without the fearless contributions made by the team at Imara Tech.

Imara Tech has a vision to bring prosperity, resilience, and sustainability to every farm in Africa with products like the Multi-Crop Thresher (MCT). The Tanzania-based start-up has 10 employees, a fully-operational workshop, a growing sales agent network, an expanding product portfolio, and a network of local partners. None of this, however, happened overnight. Years of struggle, failure, and trying moments have led the young team at Imara Tech to where they are today.

Here is their story.

Forming a Team

After graduating from MIT in 2014, Elliot Avila found himself on his way to Tanzania for the third time with a dream to help others. Interested in the notion that technology could create impact in underserved markets, Elliot began working with a partner organization on a mechanized multi-crop thresher called the MCT, which removes grain from the plants after harvesting.

“When I was building those first threshers, I realized I had an impactful product, and yet nothing was ever going to happen with it,” said Elliot on the early stages of MCT development. “I wanted the product to go somewhere and get used, but I needed a way to do that. I started Imara Tech as a vehicle for moving agricultural products like the MCT out of the workshop and onto the farm.”

At 23 years old, Elliot had a self-described naiveté about business, citing that he had to look up what “CEO” meant when he was getting started. Regardless of his business acumen, Elliot knew he needed a team that would push the boundaries of innovation. It was in Tanzania that he met Adriana Garties of the US and Alfred Chengula of Tanzania, who joined as co-founders of Imara Tech. The pair rounded out the trio nicely: Adriana with her technical and mechanical inventiveness joined as CTO and Alfred with his tenacious problem solving skills joined as COO.

Together, the three officially registered Imara Tech as a for-profit business in Tanzania in 2016. Idealistic and determined, the team faced a number of challenges as they learned what it meant to run a business.

“In some ways our lack of experience has been a challenge because we have to learn everything from scratch as we go,” said Elliot. “In other ways, our naiveté has been our greatest strength: we have no attachments to what a business should be and how it should operate, and that allows us to create something very unconventional.”

Building a Business from the Ground Up

Alfred (middle) and Elliot (right) testing the MCT in the field with a user.

At the core of Imara Tech is a threshing machine. Since the first early-stage prototypes, the team has continually refined the design of the MCT through field-testing with users and prototyping in workshops. Through many design iterations, the team developed a design that completely changes the way smallholders’ farm by allowing multiple crops to be threshed within a modular and compact machine. But having a prototype was just step one and Elliot and his team still needed to figure out how to scale their product and make it accessible.

In the beginning, the Imara Tech team considered manufacturing their product abroad and importing it into the country. But in the face of seasonal cash flow projections, cash-constrained customers, and a market that could collapse due to bad weather, they began to reconsider that approach. Rather than importing, they decided to use a local, lean manufacturing approach: outsource parts to local workshops for fabrication and collect finished parts for final assembly and distribution.

“This model gives us a scalable supply chain with little overhead: we have minimal inventory, capex, and fixed costs,” explained Elliot. “I had seen our co-founder, Adriana, do small-scale manufacturing runs out of local workshops, and we thought, ‘why don’t we just keep doing that?’ We ran with that idea until we arrived at the lean model that we have today.”

Alfred (front) and Adriana (back) discussing the workshop operations at a team meeting.

Imara Tech opened its first official workshop in May 2019 and began to implement its lean production model to make MCTs under Adriana’s direction. The first production cycles presented numerous challenges and the team had to spend extra time reworking their first products, but eventually the quality control stabilized. With the product and supply stabilized, the focus shifted to capturing market demand.

Alfred (front) presenting the MCT to a group of farmers at a market demo

At a $700 price point, the MCT is out of price range for many smallholder farmers. Instead of targeting them, Imara Tech sells the MCT to customers that they call rural entrepreneurs: people in rural areas who buy the MCT and operate it as a threshing business for smallholder farmers.

“The MCT is an income-generating machine that can pay for itself within one season,” noted Alfred on the MCTs value proposition. “One of our first customers from 2016 earned $2,200 USD over three years from operating their MCT. Another of our early customers has earned $2,000 USD over three years of operating their MCT, and has used that money to buy another machine and expand their threshing business.”

Alfred, who is in charge of Imara Tech’s sales and marketing operations, experimented with a number of different sales channels before settling on using a rural sales agent network to market and sell the MCT. The team chose that model after they realized they needed to include more market demonstrations in their sales strategy; considering the price tag, buyers needed to see the product in action before committing to purchase. The rural sales agent network gave them a sales force that could interact with customers and conduct marketing demos in their region while also serving as a link between the customers and the company.

Raising Capital and Growing

Five years after Elliot’s move to Tanzania, Imara Tech has become an operational start-up, although it is still a fledgling business. To continue growing, Imara Tech will need to raise more funds, something that the team previously struggled to do.

In the early days, the team had a clear understanding of their product and value proposition but found it difficult to communicate a business strategy. This lack of clarity made it difficult to raise funds, and the team went through a period of time where they did not have the resources to operate and instead had to build out their business on paper. Throughout this time, they relied on their more experienced partners to help guide them and keep them on track.

“The one advantage that we have had is our partners, like epNetwork, have taken a chance on us and supported us while we continue to learn and grow,” said Elliot. “Through empowering people. Network (epNetwork), we participated in business development workshops, attended global summits on SDG innovation, and received consulting services to revamp our investment strategy. This exposure to the business world helped us to understand our own business better.”

From all the business development workshops, regular strategy meetings, and self-reflection, the team grew from a trio of innovators into a team of entrepreneurs with a clear understanding of what they wanted Imara Tech to be: a lean manufacturing company that makes agricultural equipment for smallholders.

Understanding this helped them to share their vision with others, and Elliot believes this is what led to their first investment. For their next round of investment, he is looking to share not only the Imara Tech vision, but the journey as well.

“Going forward, it is all about gaining traction in the market and sharing that progress with the world,” noted Elliot. “We learn every day. As long as that remains true, Imara Tech will continue to move closer toward its vision of bringing prosperity, resilience, and sustainability to every smallholder farm in Africa.”

Imara Tech’s Top Five Lessons

We asked Elliot to share what important lessons he learned as an entrepreneur. This is what he said:

  • Ideas are less important than execution.
    • “My team and I dream big, but most of our days are spent grinding away at tasks that are very mundane. It’s hard work, but without the discipline to sit down every day and grind away at the small tasks, the big dreams will never become real.”
  • 10 focused hours per week is better than 60 hours without clear direction.
    • “One of the mistakes we made was spending huge amounts of time and energy trying to push Imara Tech forward when what we really needed was to understand what Imara Tech was.”
  • Learn to balance work and life with your co-founders.
    • “Before big decisions, my team and I reaffirm our friendship and acknowledge that it is important but also separate from our work. This helps keep us balanced and lets us be comfortable to give each other space and support as needed.”
  • The social enterprise world has Silicon Valley influences (and that’s not necessarily a good thing).
    • “There’s a ton of hype in the social enterprise world for start-ups promising massive disruption. It’s tempting to buy into the hype, but early-stage social enterprises should consider modelling themselves after small businesses and staying focused on getting the fundamentals right rather than emulating what Steve Jobs or Snapchat may have done.”
  • Product-based social enterprises should not get stuck focused solely on their product.
    • “Successful hardware companies are always innovating on other areas of the business. You should have something that you do better than anyone else that enables your product to always be the best.”

This blog is based on an interview with Elliot Avila and Alfred Chengula, Co-Founders of Imara Tech.

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Elliot, Alfred, and Adriana – we wish you and Imara Tech much success in Tanzania! You are a great representation of the high-caliber social development enterprises that make up epNetwork. Keep up the great work in your field!

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